Books by Zenubia Arsalan
Meet the Dubai author giving children a Muslim superhero
By Melanie Swan
This article originally appeared in the National UAE.
Reading from an early age has been dubbed as the single most important predictor of academic success. Children learn about the world and themselves through the books they are exposed to. However, the lack of diversity in children’s books has been a sore point for many parents, children and academics. But now a new wave of authors from diverse backgrounds are making their voices heard.
“All children deserve to see themselves reflected in books they read,” says Zenubia Arsalan. “Growing up, I did not see myself or my faith represented in the books I read and even at that time it perplexed me,”
“Books were a big part of my childhood growing up in Pakistan. We read the popular books of the time as well as the classics but I didn’t read a single book that had a child like me as a character. My father is a retired merchant navy captain. As a child I spent many summers at sea, travelling from port to port learning about different countries and cultures and living among different nationalities. Yet, the books we read reflected nothing of the beautiful diversity,” “My children love reading Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling. These books are amazing and I cherish from my own childhood, but these should not be the only books that our children read,” says Arsalan.
According to Cooperative Children’s Book Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 33 per cent of books published in 2018 depict characters from diverse backgrounds.
From a literary point of view children’s books are often classified as window books or mirror books. Windows through which we look into lives different than others – a different world, time, place or culture. Mirror books are the ones in which we see a reflection of ourselves, that validate us, our feelings, our existence.
According to Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, “when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
Currently based in UAE, Arsalan realizes the challenges of raising readers in a multicultural environment. “Now as a parent, now I feel even more strongly about diverse books, ” says Arsalan. “Dubai is a very multi-cultural place, like a fruit salad where every retains their individuality while adding to the flavor. Yet the books on my children’s bookshelves did not reflect this diversity.” She says.
“I realized how important it is to see ourselves represented in the books we read, when my 8-year old daughter asked me for advice on a story she was writing. I suggested names like Aisha, Ali and Fatima for the characters but she dismissed them as ‘very silly names for characters’ and went on to give her characters very English names and set her story in the English countryside.”
Arsalan was surprised at this reaction from her daughter who has only ever lived in the UAE with majority of her classmates being Arabs or Pakistani. The impression the books and other media make on children cannot be denied. And this is what compelled her to pick the pen.
“Our children need books that are relevant to them. I believe there is a great need for books are in our own voice and are unapologetic about our identity, faith and values.”
“The idea for Before Allah Made You (previously titled Before Birth, Beyond Life) started with two simple questions my children kept asking me – where did we come from and what happens when we pass away? It is usually at bedtime when we want the children to settle down and sleep that they come up with the most profound questions.
Often times parents do not express their love for their children and assume that the children already know that they are loved. But research after research tells us that the children need to hear the expressions of love over and over again. The book gives mothers the vocabulary to express their love and conveys the attachment they felt even before the child was born.
The book is written from the point of view of the mother assuring her child that she belongs and how much love, thought and detail went into her creation.
Between Fear and Hope: A Young Muslim’s Journey is written from the point of view of the father offering his unconditional love and support to the child no matter which profession he chooses in life.
“Culturally, there were only a few professions that parents approved of and the children were forced into professions they didn’t quite own. With this book, my hope is that both the parents and the children look at the bigger picture and define their aspirations in terms of how they can create value in the lives of others.”
The Cosmos That Allah Has Designed was inspired by cosmology – looking at the universe as a well-ordered whole. The book takes us on a journey – we come across the earth, the moon, the sun, the stars, the planets, the milky way and the blackholes and observe the natural phenomena unfold before us.
We need to be more proactive in curating good books for children and encouraging them to widen their horizons in terms of the kind of books they read. As they say, there is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.
The children are naturally fascinated by the workings of our universe and curious about our place in it. This book is meant as a starting point to think deeply about the universe.”
This article originally appeared in The National UAE